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Hot Potato

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In the absence of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and Marco Pappa, Seattle's offense can't hold on to the ball.

Juggle it while the music is playing.
Juggle it while the music is playing.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

100

Consider a sample of 100 passes directed towards a forward attacking player in Major League Soccer. In 2014, the average MLS midfielder completed 83% of their short passes and 63% of their long passes - so let's be generous and say roughly 70 of the original passes will at least reach their designated target. This back-of-the envelope calculation should acknowledge that some characteristically low-percentage upfield distribution comes from the goalkeeper and the backline, and that some of the more successful passing from midfield is devoted to possession rather than attack. Some passes end in aerial duels, and the average forward wins that challenge about 1 out of every 3 times.

70

The average attacker gets called offside almost twice (1.90) for every 100 offensive touches (here defined as passes, crosses, shots, and dribble attempts). This data now comes from the top 90 players receiving starting minutes at forward or in the attacking midfield in 2015, via whoscored.com. Clint Dempsey rarely hazards the offside trap (0.17 calls per 100 touches). Obafemi Martins plays an oddly active role back in Seattle's offense, but has the numbers to show a regular effort to play even with the opposing backline (1.65). Lamar Neagle (4.61) and Chad Barrett (3.85) are called offside more often, but not excessively so for more conventional striker roles.

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In mentioning roles, we should pause and marvel at Obafemi Martins - a pretty unconventional choice for hold-up play. Martins isn't a particularly tall or massive target for lofted service or receiving the ball in traffic, though he wins 35% of his aerial duels. He has a higher responsibility in distribution than the average attacker, recording about 37 basic passes for every 90 minutes on the field (30 is the average of the dataset), of which a bit over 53% are directed upfield. His touch is outstanding, but his short pass accuracy can be a bit rough (76% is roughly average, but superior to that of most true forwards in the list). The remarkable thing about Martins is his ability to be the Sounders' primary hold-up player, shooter, and through-ball target all within the same game. Differences in forward roles have a massive impact on attacker stats:

HotPotato1

The more responsibility an attacker has to distribute the ball, the less likely they are to give it away. The dataset contains both providers and receivers. Plenty of attackers in MLS and elsewhere specialize in haunting the final third with infrequent-but-dangerous touches. As they fill in for Seattle's missing DPs, Neagle and Barrett take up a substantially lesser share of the team's distribution. The difference can be confusing - both this season and last, some commenters have pointed out that Neagle may give the ball away, but so do Martins and Dempsey. Martins, in fact, is responsible for the largest number of turnovers (inaccurate passes, bad touches, dispossessed, and failed dribbles) among Seattle's 2015 forwards (15.8 for every 90 minutes). The graph above gives us important context - an expected turnover rate for pass frequency. Draw a line between each player data point and the trendline. Chad Barrett should lose possession about 43.55 times for every 100 offensive touches, but instead loses 44.87. Lamar Neagle should lose the ball 44.86 percent of the time, but instead loses it 51.42 percent of the time. The difference of 6.56 is the 11th "worst" mark among the 90 players listed.

HotPotato2

34 balls remaining.

I say "worst" because the mark, in itself, is not bad. The highest score (12.73) belongs to Orlando City's Carlos Rivas, but other players having high turnover rates include Dom Dwyer (12.58), Octavio Rivero (11.40), and Diego Valeri (8.56). Neagle, however, is in a group of players for whom the chance creation rate doesn't excuse generosity in possession, contributing to only 2.41 open play chances (shots + key passes + assists) per 90'. Dwyer's mark is 2.91, but the others mentioned above register 3.8 chances created or more. Neagle's creation rate paired with possession loss puts him in the less laudable company of Teal Bunbury, Quincy Amarikwa, and Andrew Wenger.

However, as much as that production falls below Seattle's lofty expectations, it's not an outlier in league context. As much as Barrett and Neagle are playing poorly, the greater failure is team's inability to come up with a viable offensive structure to hide their weaknesses and utilize their strengths (though one might note that Barrett should be the team's best alternative for hold-up play and physical challenges, but has been pretty abysmal in those roles, winning the same 35% of aerial duels as Martins). With the absence of Dempsey, Martins, and Marco Pappa - along with the poor performance of Gonzalo Pineda - the Sounders midfield has been forced into expecting high-pass-volume creative play out of recent arrivals (Thomas, Erik Friberg), youngsters (Cristian Roldan) or useful role players with the wrong talent set (Andy Rose).

Barrett and Neagle create chances from open play 11% of the time they shoot or pass, roughly at the MLS average.

4

About 40% of MLS shots are off target, including two decent headed chances Barrett and Neagle squandered against Montreal.

2 is the number of times out of 100 we can hope Seattle can challenge the keeper from an attacking posture. Sometimes luck puts those balls in, but a healthy offense tests luck more often.

In the numbers, the chance creation of the forwards isn't exactly the problem... but structured as-is, Seattle cannot retain upfield possession to give them, or anyone, the opportunity.

Raw data for this work is collected from OPTA via whoscored.com.